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Written by Nikitas Magel   

Merryvale Vineyards

Longtime Napa Winery Continues to Make Quality Accessible
— An Interview with the Senior Winemaker of Merryvale Vineyards

A visit to the grounds of Merryvale Vineyards reveals everything we've come to expect of a Napa Valley winery: graceful design, serene landscaping, warm hospitality, and, of course, quality-driven wines.  On scratching the surface, though, we discover something that doesn't seem quite as common anymore among producers here: a commitment to making wines of high caliber that are accessible to more consumers in the marketplace.  With its entry-level Starmont line, it seems that Merryvale has struck a fine balance by offering wines made from top vineyard sources, all at a higher availability and lower price point than we might expect for their quality.  In addition, through its smaller-production and more premium lines that showcase the best of its own estate vineyards, Merryvale provides elevated options for more discriminating palates.  To learn more about its marketing strategy and winemaking philosophy, I met with the winery's Communications Director, Chris O'Gorman, and its Senior Winemaker, Sean Foster, in the dramatic ambiance of its historical Cask Room.

With a total case production exceeding 100,000, it may come as a surprise that Merryvale is a family-owned winery.  As producers of comparable size are increasingly assimilated into corporate-run conglomerates, this one has stood fast as an independent entity fixated on a single goal — "to craft elegant, complex world-class wines in the finest European style yet reflecting the exuberant fruit from Napa Valley's finest vineyards."  Doing so in a way that makes quality widely attainable is, in large part, what has kept this industry stalwart, under the ownership of Jack Schlatter and his son René, in business since its humbler beginning in 1983 all the way through today's uncertain economic climate.  Hearing about the inner workings of its winemaking team, and how its overall philosophy firmly underpins its brands, was a compelling reminder that wine production, through all its craftmanship and artistry, is still a business with a responsibility to the consumer.  It's a focus that Merryvale successfully maintains, in striking a balance between quality and value.

The Make and its Mission

NM:  You've been making wine for Merryvale for quite a few years now, right?

SF:  This was really the first company I worked for in the wine industry.  I've been with Merryvale now for thirteen harvests — the first one of which was an internship where I pulled hoses and did pump-overs in the cellar along with some lab work.  In 2002, I went to another winery.  But then about three years ago, I came back here while Merryvale was building the Starmont Winery — which is what I came back to oversee.  Overall, I'd have to say that I love this industry.  It's been a lot of hard work over the years, but it's also been so rewarding because of its complexity.  On the one hand, we're dealing with farming, production, and operations.  But there's also the artistic side where we're dealing with the wines' expression and blending, and trying to have a vision of where we want the wine to go or oversee it going on its own, both in the cellar as far as techniques, as well as what we need to do in the vineyard to get the fruit source that we want.  Mother Nature is always throwing a curveball!  So, it's a lot of challenges but also a lot of fun.  And I love wine, so it's great to be making something that I'm so passionate about to really pour myself into.

NM:  Merryvale has a history and reach in the marketplace on a number of levels, starting with the Starmont brand and going all the way up to the super-premium Profile line.  What has been your experience in working for this well-known brand, given its provenance and position in the industry?

Merryvale's Starmont WinesSF:  Early on, I was lucky to apprentice with a phenomenal winemaker who was extremely passionate about winemaking and made a very strong impression on me.   Because when I first entered this industry, I was young and eager and really wanted to learn to make not only wine in general, but wine at a high level of quality.  Fortunately, Merryvale's vision from the beginning has been to make the best that they can from the fruit sources.  And although we make over 100,000 cases, it's quality that has really been the emphasis, rather than quantity.  Also, when you're a winemaker, it's not about ego; it's about doing the best you can for the winery, for the brand.  We're here to make the best product because in the end, the wine is going to the consumer and I want that consumer to enjoy the wine and feel they've gotten value for the money they spent on our wines.  And I think Merryvale strives to deliver value at all levels — with the goal, really of over-delivering, based on whom we see ourselves competing against.

NM:  During your time making wine for Merryvale, what changes have you seen come about that you feel are significant both for the brand and for the industry as a whole?

"Winemaking is an ancient art, so the really interesting part lies in the simply manifesting the fruit into wine in a way that ideally expresses a single vintage and location."

SF:  First and foremost has been the quality and consistency of the fruit that we're getting in the premium growing regions in California.  I'm most familiar with Napa and Sonoma, but I think there's been significant strides in the level of effort and commitment, especially at the high end, that's gone into growing the right fruit in the right places and doing things well in the vineyards, so that the starting material itself is great.  There's also the availability of many different [winegrape] clones, versus having only a few, so we have many more options that allow us to attain a lot more complexity.  On the winemaking side, I could sit here and say that the technological advances are great because they help with consistency, and I think it's good to take advantage of the technology.  But at the same time, winemaking is an ancient art, so the really interesting part lies in the simply manifesting the fruit into wine in a way that ideally expresses a single vintage and location.  And balancing that expression with consistency in quality is something we've been able to do better in recent years.  That said, though, we still need to be careful as an industry that things don't become too homogenous, that differences remain apparent among different producers.

NM:  It must be a challenge, then, to manage the entry-level line for such a high profile Napa brand, because you're balancing a number of critical elements all at once: articulating the overall house style; making Starmont stand out from the other quality tiers; and doing those at a price point that's widely accessible in the marketplace.  How do you balance all that with a single, entry-level product line?

SF:  It always starts with the source material, the fruit.  We're in constant evaluation of our vineyard sourcing, and we're always looking to see which vineyard sources are already aligned with how make wine and what we're trying to achieve.  If they are, that's great, but there's usually room for improvement.  We make a concerted effort to work with the growers to do certain things in the vineyard to improve the fruit and bring it into line with what we want.  That's key: if we start with sourcing material that works for what you're trying to achieve, then things are a lot easier.  If a source of fruit is not quite where we want it, then there are things we can do in the cellar to coax so that it'll work with our other fruit and give us a final blend that represents what we're trying to achieve. In the Starmont line, we want wines that are clearly fruit-defined, varietally correct, and complex — and while clearly not the most complex in our portfolio, complex enough to go head to head with, or even surpass, other brands at the same price point.  Merryvale's Starmont Wines Our goal is to overdeliver for the price.  A lot of that comes down to fruit sourcing, techniques in the cellar, and craftsmanship.  And we apply the same philosophy to Starmont that we do to our other tiers of wine, just on a larger scale.  I'm just as passionate about the larger lots that go into the Starmont Cabernet as I am about our smallest lot of estate Syrah or Pinot; they're all part of the bigger picture and they all have their role to play.

Winemaker Sean FosterSF: (con'd) Winemaking, in general, comes down to a long series of decisions that we make.  There are primary and critical decisions like picking, but then there are more subtle ones, like what we do with racking, topping, stirring lees, or whatever, to ideally move the level of quality further up and to slowly coax the wine to where we'd like it to go.  And it takes a long time!  Often we'll make decisions and have to wait a few months to see if we made the right ones, and sometimes we make wrong ones.  In the end, we try to make enough right decisions so that we're truly improving the wine.  When a lot of other producers take on an entry-level wine like this, their approach becomes formulaic — the wines are on a set schedule, racked and topped at regular intervals, etcetera.  Ultimately there's not a lot of passion or energy put into those products; they're viewed more as a commodity.  Whereas, here, I believe we put a great deal of passion and energy into everything that we make.

NM:  How would you articulate what Merryvale hopes the Starmont wines are for its target consumers?

"For us, it's about making the best decisions for the business, and about doing the right thing; it's not about anyone trying to grab the limelight."

SF:  One goal would for it to be a wine that consumers can rely on as a 'go-to' wine.  If a consumer needs a bottle of wine for whatever reason, they can go to a store and pick up a Starmont Cabernet or Starmont Chardonnay and know that it's going to deliver for them.  I think that's the overarching idea.  Now, what is it that we're going to deliver?  With Starmont, we're making wines that are varietally correct, that accurately express their fruit sources and the given vintage, and that aren't overoaked — we use a modest amount of oak to try to balance the wine, finding the level of oak that works for the overall concentration, weight, and complexity of the wine.  The Starmont Cabernet uses grapes from the valley floor in Napa, where the soil is a little richer and farmers can grow somewhat bigger vines with more fruit on them, which we can then buy for less than hillside fruit.  It doesn't mean that that fruit is any less desirable; it's about value for the price.  And we work really closely with the growers to get that fruit to where we want it and then buy it for a reasonable price.  We're constantly striving to do the best we can on our side so that we can deliver quality.  And also consistency: vintage in and vintage out, the Starmont line is made to be a consistently value-driven brand that people can go to and expect quality.

The Team and its Techniques

NM:  I'm curious about the fact that, as head winemaker for Merryvale, you're overseeing its entry-level, everyday line rather than its more premium lines.  Are there ironically more challenges to overseeing production of the value-driven wines?

SF:  Well, it's not really just about winemaking; there is also running of the business and facility operations.  Plus, it's also very collaborative.  The way we manage this is that [at the main winery] in St. Helena we've got Graham, a very talented winemaker who's totally capable of running the show here.  He and I taste together frequently and have a common shared vision of where we want the wines here to go, and in the end he's in charge of executing that.  He comes down to [the Starmont facility in] Carneros to taste and collaborate with us on the Pinots and Chardonnays.  It's all a very collaborative effort.  Winemaker Graham Wehmeier In addition to Graham, I have an assistant winemaker down at the Starmont winery, and then we have Remi who oversees all the vineyard operations and grape-purchasing.  We frequently sit down all together as a group to taste and talk about stuff.  And we keep the ego out of it.  For us, it's about making the best decisions for the business, and about doing the right thing; it's not about anyone trying to grab the limelight.  We're all working for Merryvale, we're all in this together.  So it's a team effort.  I think during the first generation of development in this industry, a lot of people had drive and passion, but I think also expected to get the recognition.  There was the rock-star aspect of winemaking — there still is! — but we're trying to get past all that.  Because in the end, there's no Superman winemaker; we're all human.  Some make wines in ways that some consumers really like, others make them in ways that other consumers prefer.

NM:  So you're personally involved in the making of some of the wines under the more premium Merryvale tier?

Merryvale CabernetSF:  In addition to the Starmont wines, I oversee all of the other Merryvale tier of wines that are made down in Carneros, at the Starmont facility: Pinot, Syrah, and Chardonnay.  And occasionally we make some Cabernet and Merlot down there that might end up in the premium Merryvale tier.  During harvest, between the two facilities, we put things where it makes the most sense and what's best for the fruit, taking into consideration the constraints of harvest itself.  The benefit up here [at the St. Helena facility] is that Graham is working on 10-15% of our production, and he can just put a lot of time and energy into that 10-15% to really craft those wines.  At the Starmont facility, we put a lot of energy into Pinots and Chardonnays under the Merryvale tier, and are very hands-on with those wines as well.  The blocks of those varietals tend to be smaller, so they're much more handcrafted.

NM:  Speaking of which, what are the challenges that you face in making wines for the more premium Merryvale tier?

SF:  Wines from lots that go into our Merryvale label of wines come from selected vineyards that are at a higher level of potential quality.  And because they tend to be from smaller vineyard blocks, the fermentations are also done on a smaller scale.  We're looking to get things absolutely right for those wines, so we want to make sure when we pick that we're capturing precisely what we think we're going to capture.  With Starmont, the vineyard blocks are bigger, so it's a bit harder to pinpoint what we're going to get when we pick — we try to, but because of the sizes, we can't go out and taste everything.  But with Merryvale, we're honing in on a particular block at a specific time and then layering that with a lot of handcrafted, detail-oriented work.  One example is using punchion-ferments, which is a much more labor intensive fermentation process: a half ton of fruit is placed into an open-top punchion, is punched down by hand, and then undergoes native-yeast fermentation that requires a bit more monitoring and careful observation.  Once fermentation is done and the wine is ready to go into barrel, we want to ensure that we're picking the barrels that best integrate with the fruit.  Because barrels are to winemakers like spices are to chefs; the fruit will respond differently depending on how heavily a barrel is toasted or on the selection of the wood itself — some wood has more grip to it, others more finesse and elegance.  And so we try to match that with the wine.  Then during the aging process, we're always taking care of the wine, thinking about which choices to make.  Ideally what we're doing with the Merryvale tier [much more so than with the Starmont] is starting with fruit that has more concentration, depth, and complexity to begin with, and then layering that with winemaking decisions to expand and improve upon it.  So, there's more really potential to work with in the starting base of the Merryvale tier than the Starmont.

"You cannot have just one recipe for winemaking and apply it to everything. You've got to be flexible and keep an open mind."

NM:  Overall, in the years that you've been making wines, what have you learned that has really surprised you and perhaps even dismantled some prior assumptions that you might have had in your earlier understanding of winemaking?

SF:  One that comes to mind that we're actually working through right now is the way we manage our Cabernets on the skins.  Early on in my career, my attitude was to extract everything we possibly could from the skins.  And that meant doing things like a lot of pump-overs and extended macerations.  What we've been learning and developing, as the science has come more into practice, is that we don't necessarily need to extract so much of the fruit from some vineyards.  The grapes from some sites may be off better pressed early, before they get too much tannin and phenolic compounds in them. What we're trying to do now is find the best balance for each wine, depending on the vineyard source and vintage.  Some vineyards yield fruit with a lot of tannin in them already, so we might not want it all in the finished wine; we'll extract a good amount, find the right time, and press off.  That could even mean pressing while the wine is still a little sweet, just as it's finishing primary fermentation. And then with other vineyards, we might leave the fruit for an extended period of time on the skins. It's always a constant challenge with dismantling dogma, that there's no one right fit for everything — Starmont's Fermentation Tanks rather, we've got a big tool bag and are always adding new techniques to it, and so trying to find the right technique for a given situation is always a challenge.  You cannot have just one recipe for winemaking and apply it to everything.  You've got to be flexible and keep an open mind.  We're very curious in the way we do things and we experiment — because there's a lot to be gained with experimentation; it really pulls the gems out, as you uncover them.

One of Merryvale's Napa VineyardsNM:  How much room do you have for experimentation?  Are you able to take some lots of wine, throw caution to the wind, and try different things — knowing full well that a particular test lot might never make it to the market as a commercially sold wine?

SF:  That's the great thing about having the different tiers that we do — the Starmont, the Merryvale, and the Profile.  It allows us to take little bits of fruit, little bits of wine, and experiment, knowing, of course, that we're not going to do anything so crazy as to ruin the wine.  But we'll push the boundaries in different ways.  If it turns out great, then we could always put that into one of the Merryvale-labeled wines, but if not, we've got other wines in which a small test amount is going to wash out into the larger blends and won't negatively impact the larger quantity.  We might test various kinds of oak or different types of treatments, leave wines unracked for a period of time, stir the Merlots and Cabernets on the lees

NM:  Stirring red wines on the lees, really?  In my experience, that's not commonly talked about in winemaking.  We hear more about that technique with white wines, especially Chardonnay.

SF:  Just as with Chardonnay, in stirring the lees of a Merlot or Cabernet you might lose a little color but you can definitely build more mouthfeel.

NM:  Would you say that a lot of the techniques that began with efforts to improve white wines are being applied now more frequently to red wines?

"Fermenting a Cabernet in barrel helps make the wine a little softer, because it rounds out the tannins a little earlier and minimizes the need for tinkering later on."

SF:  Either they're now being applied more to red wines, or we've come full circle again if they were done in the past.  It's a big box to unpack.  There's been dogma, for example, with Cabernet that after its fermented and you press off, you need to get it relatively clean and then put it in barrel clean, because otherwise the wine can become reductive. Most people followed that dogma across the board.  But we've since learned that there's both good and bad types of reduction in red wine.  A good type of reduction puts the wine in a state that actually changes the way it ages, perhaps slows it down just a bit and alters it in a way that adds different elements of depth to the wine.  Furthermore, we can use that to create part of a blend to add even more complexity.  So, let's say we were to take the same lot of Cabernet, and put half in barrel with a little bit of lees and the other half in a completely clean barrel.  The half on the lees will become reductive, but in a good way — barrel reductive — that will give some smokey, campfirey notes and push the profile more towards black fruits.  The half in the clean barrels will have a brighter, redder fruit profile.  Well, now, if you take those two wines and put them together, you'll have a single wine that has both brighter fruit aromatics as well as some deeper, darker qualities — all of which ultimately will give you more complexity in the final product.

Harvesting the GrapesSo, this sort of technique [commonly used for white wines], by being applied to reds allows for earlier fruit integration and helps stabilize the wine's color and soften its tannins.  The reason why Chardonnay is often fermented in barrel — versus fermenting in a stainless steel tank and then putting into barrel only for aging — is that it creates a little bit of heat, metabolizing the wood and releasing wood components earlier into the wine.  That can be important for a white wine that would otherwise be aged in barrel for only 8-10 months; it helps to get that early integration [with barrel fermentation].  Cabernets are traditionally are aged in barrel for 18-24 months, so if you do ferment in an inert tank and then put the wine in barrel, it has plenty of time to integrate those wood components.  Even so, barrel fermenting a Cabernet still helps make the wine a little softer, because it rounds out the tannins a little earlier and minimizes the need for tinkering later on.  Otherwise, we'd have to fine the wine and work it hard right before it goes to bottle.  Barrel fermentation can help us avoid all that harsher handling late in the game.  Plus, just as with white wines, it helps to build mouthfeel.

Varietals in the Vineyard

Merryvale Estate MerlotNM:  Speaking of softer, rounder red wines, let's talk about the Merryvale Merlot.  I imagine there's a challenge to selling a $35 Merlot to consumers these days, in large part because the varietal has fallen out of favor in the market over the last few years.

SF:  First off, Merlot is a noble varietal; it's pedigree is phenomenal.  Just as with a lot of other noble varietals, when it's farmed in a way that's in keeping with what it needs, it can be quite expressive.  But if it's farmed in the way that overcrops and takes advantage of tonnage, then it becomes a very thin, weedy, uninteresting wine.  And that's really what happened with Merlot in California — it was planted and grown in places that it shouldn't have been, and ended up making a great deal of weak, boring, monotonous wines.  Merlot is otherwise phenomenal for blending or as a stand-alone wine; it's got unique varietal expression, mouthfeel, and complexity.  Here, we're trying to make a wine that's a truly noble expression of the Merlot varietal.  We stand by our Merlot and think that there could very well be a pendulum swing with its popularity in the market.  Plus, we'll have to see what happens with Pinot Noir, because like Merlot, Pinot is very sensitive to where and how it's grown.  And there's been a lot of Pinot planted lately in places that probably should not be growing it.  So, what happened to Merlot may, in fact, end up happening with Pinot, because right now there's a lot of mediocre Pinot being produced.  Whereas we try to source only vineyard sites that express Merlot very well, like Carneros or cooler pockets in the valley itself, versus the warmer sites that tend to be better suited for Cabernet.

NM:  This Merryvale Merlot is strongly suggestive of a cooler site, with its bright, fresh fruit and pronounced floral aromatics.  Its acidity pumps that up even more.  I wonder if that's really key to showcasing Merlot in general, since it does tend to like cooler sites.

"We stand by our Merlot and think that there could very well be a pendulum swing with its popularity in the market."

SF:  I think what we find with Carneros Merlot is that we get a very nice expression of fresh, ripe black cherry — versus Merlot from some other warmer areas that tend to be a bit overripe, perhaps even prune-like or raisiny.  In the cooler sites, it retains its freshness.  We make our Carneros Merlot under the Merryvale tier as an expression of that fresh fruit with a slight herbal quality and I think, in the best cases, even a dried herb background, along with a bit of chocolate and other aromas along those lines.  And it does have some really nice acidity!  But it's a challenging varietal to grow, to be honest.  People say that Pinot is very finicky, which is true, but Merlot can also be quite challenging.

NM:  On the flip side, I understand that one of the easiest varietals to grow and manage is Cabernet.  And the irony there is that it's probably the only varietal in the U.S. marketplace that's able to command the prices that it does.  And of course, that's a function of the quality that can come out of it, both in terms of vineyard practices and in the winemaking techniques.  So, in a sense, Cabernet seems to be doubly blessed: it's less temperamental that some other varietals, and its quality can be pushed very far.

SF:  I think you're right on with those comments.  Cabernet is a very vigorous variety, so it definitely takes management, but it's very consistent in the vineyard.  What it offers is the ability to have a consistent canvas, so then it's up to the individual growers and winemakers to tailor it with things like ensuring the yield is appropriate to the site, and deciding on when to pick and how irrigate.  With a lot of other varieties, some of the energy is spent just trying to get things uniform.  Cabernet's fairly uniform on its own in the vineyard, so it can be an easier wine to hone in with efforts in the cellar. Whereas Pinot or Merlot, for example, provide unique challenges just in growing. And Cabernet really thrives in the soil types and the climate we have here.  In fact, what we do get concerned about is getting the vineyard in balance because, as I said, A Merryvale Vineyard Cabernet is a very vigorous variety; encouraged or just left unchecked, it will grow and grow, putting its energy into vegetative growth rather than in maturing fruit.  So, we really want to make sure to reign it in, which we do with irrigation and the way we manage the cover crop to help de-vigor the vines.  Then we've got to ensure we get enough light on the fruit to convert the bell-peppery aromas into more ripe berry aromas.

A Clan of Cabernets

Merryvale CabernetNM:  Tasting the 2006 Starmont Cabernet and the 2005 Merryvale Cabernet, the one thing that immediately strikes me — differences in fruit quality notwithstanding — is the vast differences in their flavor profiles.  The Starmont seems prettier, a bit more showy, floral, and berry-like, whereas the Merryvale seems a much more restrained a linear in it flavor profile, with less obviously berry qualities and more of black currant and spice.

SF:  Our intent with the Starmont Cabernet ($27) was to be a bit more attention-grabbing and easier-drinking.  This is a wine that we want people to pick up a bottle that's perfect for them to take to a party that same night and consume, while also having enough stuff where it can last a few years, too.  And fruit sourcing drives a lot of that — we're working with valley floor fruit that's got good color but probably not as much tannin as hillside vineyard sourcing does.  Now, when when get to the Merryvale Cabernet ($50), we're dealing with more well-drained soils and some hillside vineyards, which produce wines that are denser and darker, with more tannin and extract, and early on they can be a bit more brooding and less obvious.  But these are wines that are meant to age, and are perhaps not as much for consuming right now; they'll reward with some cellaring.  Not to say that they're undrinkable right now, but if you lay these down for 3-5 years, what you'll get, once the tannins soften in bottle and other components goes through secondary development, is a wine that's more supple and better balanced, and some of the complexities that might be hard to pick out now will come forward.  And then once we get to the Profile line of Cabernet ($125), those are even higher in tannin, but those tannins are very soft and approachable.

"What's the difference between a Cabernet at a $50 price point and one that's over a $100 price point? A lot of boils down to site."

So that brings up a larger question: what's the difference between a Cabernet at a $50 price point and one that's over a $100 price point?  A lot of it boils down to site: you're going from tannins that could use a bit of aging in order to soften, to tannins that are phenomenally supple early one.  And so, summing up the three tiers of Cabernet: with the Starmont, we've got wines that are very fruity without a lot of tannin; with the Merryvale, we've got more concentration and therefore more tannins to balance that out; and finally, with the Profile, even though the overall concentration might be comparable to the Merryvale tier, we're getting a better quality and complexity of the tannins, which is really the main factor in how we choose what goes into the Profile line.

NM:  That brings up the whole subject of tannin, or physiological, ripeness in general.  There's a curve of physiological ripeness that's different from sugar ripeness, that has as much, if not in some ways more, of an impact on the resulting wine.  And so this entire other variable comes into play with the decisions around site selection, microclimate consideration, picking times, etc.  Obviously, these are factors you already take into consideration, especially with the different levels of wines that you make, in terms of which decisions may be appropriate for one wine versus another.

Merryvale Profile CabernetSF:  Ideally, we would love all of the grapes to get to a harmonious sweet spot, right?  But the reality is that it just doesn't happen in every given vintage, and different vineyard sites have different challenges.  And you're right: there's ripening of the sugars and flavors in the fruit, and then there's maturation of the tannins, which is critical for Cabernet.  I'd love to be in place where the fruit ripening and the tannin ripening intersect at one point.  This gets back to knowing what you want from a winemaking perspective, but then also knowing and managing the vineyard, and being more of a farmer so you can maximize your desired results even before you pick the fruit.

NM:  So, in a sense, the vineyard becomes a laboratory in itself: you're wanting to control, or at least understand and predict, as many of these variables as possible, by making choices — crop thinning, water and nutrition restriction, canopy management, etc. — that you feel will 'mold' the fruit and ultimately maximize the expression of what you're ultimately wanting in the bottle.

Merryvale CellarSF:  Right.  And we're trying to do so in a way that's natural.  It's a question of how and where we have inputs, what we can influence without forcing something unnatural on the vineyard.  Ideally, our biggest levers would be how we manage the canopy and how we irrigate.  Whereas, in a perfect world, with some of these other things, like nutrition, the soil would have what it needs to slowly give to the plant.  And that would be done through composting and green manure to build the soil up, so the soil would be in a good state to sustain the fruit.  Then the levers we'd be playing with would only have to be irrigation, canopy management, and the crop load we leave on the vine.

Focused on the Future

NM:  Bringing it full circle, how does the decision-making and overall philosophy with the Merryvale and Starmont lines influence Profile and vice versa?

SF:  I would say it definitely goes in both directions.  Certainly with Profile, we're starting with source material whose tannins are more resolved in the vineyard.  We can try to extract a lot from the fruit that goes into this wine because it's not going to give aggressive or harsh tannins, so we're trying to pull out as much of the good tannin that we can.  I think what we can learn there, which we take into consideration in making the other tiers of wines, is that not all source material is the same.  If we were to take the same techniques and apply them to a vineyard whose fruit is not as resolved in it tannins, we would be over-extracting and end up with aggressive tannins in those wines.  One of the lessons here is that we have to use the appropriate technique, since one is not applicable to everything.  The benefit and dynamic of having wines at these different price points and fruit sourcing from different areas of the valley is that we see a wide variety of quality levels.  It's a great thing for Graham and I to be involved this way.  We see a wide variety of fruit and apply a wide variety of different techniques, which ideally gives us a bigger toolbox to work from and allows us to collectively share experiences of what works and what doesn't.

"Not every single piece of property in the Napa Valley can make a $50-$60 bottle of Cabernet."

NM:  Merryvale is a Napa Valley stalwart — this house, its brands, and its philosophy have been part of Napa for a long time.  From this perspective, how do you see the wine industry in Napa as a whole unfolding in the future as a major player on the world wine stage, taking special note of the current economy?

SF:  I think it's going to play out differently, depending on the level of wine quality.  On the very top end, the best properties in Napa will undoubtedly produce world class wines and compete with the best in the world.  But that doesn't represent all of Napa; there's a lot of different types and qualities of fruit.  What Napa will struggle with is that not every single piece of property in the valley can make a $50-$60 bottle of Cabernet or a $30-$40 bottle of Chardonnay.  Just because you're in this appellation, the price a wine still has to be appropriate for the quality of fruit going into it.  Unless we can figure out how we can correct that, I think Napa is going to struggle in the marketplace, because there are a lot of quality wines in the marketplace from all over the world, which come in at markedly lower prices than a lot of wines from Napa that might be somewhat lower in quality.  And that's not because we don't know what we're doing here, but rather, like I said, not every piece of property can produce a 90+ point wine.  Value is the name of the game these days and consumers are seeking that out — I'm one of them!

Merryvale HarvestCO:  I think that's entirely correct, especially in this economy.  But economies change.  Among California wines as a whole, the percentage that's from Napa Valley is really quite small, somewhere in the teens — and then far less when you add in all the other wines of the world.  There's a sea of wine out there!  But what Napa Valley has shown in its very best sites — the First Growth type of sites — is that it's very well-suited for making big, ageable Cabernet.  The terroir side of the argument is that for the people who like that style of wine, Napa Valley is one of the best in the world at doing that.  And that's not going to change.  The relative scarcity in quantity of these wines will always drive prices higher, and the people who like big, juicy, ripe, rich Cabernet that can age are always going to spend the money for this level of quality.  It has lessened somewhat in this economy, but I see that as just a part of a cyclical phenomenon that turn around again.

Merryvale WinerySF:  In weathering the storm, it's going to be important that we focus on quality, keeping it in the forefront.  Napa is a great appellation and a great place to grow grapes, so it's going to be interesting in the future to see what happens, broadly speaking, with brands here — especially given some of the consolidation we're seeing.  It's a challenge for any independent winery to function and grow, not only because of economic pressure, but also because of the force of larger corporations and the commercialization of Napa.  Here at Merryvale, we've got to make to sure to protect something that's taken 30 years to build its reputation as a Napa winery.

CO:  The thing that doesn't go away is quality.  The Napa Valley is among the most widely recognized appellations in the world, so people know Napa Valley wines and they associate it with top quality.  For people going to the best restaurants, be it in New York or London or Paris, a Napa wine is always one of the ones they consider.  And when a consumer does go into a restaurant somewhere and finds a bottle of Profile that was made ten years ago, hopefully it stuns them and they realize that a lot of effort, love, and great vineyard sites that went into making that bottle of wine, so that ten years down the line, it's an amazing piece of art.  That's the big picture view we have to maintain.

It's a big picture that Merryvale Proprietor Jack Schlatter himself drew years ago.  In justifying his uncompromising approach, he summed it up best: "I've always said that quality is Merryvale's life insurance."  To learn more about Merryvale, its portfolio of wines, and its winery hospitality and events, visit Merryvale Vineyards online.  Photo Credits: Merryvale Vineyards. v


Tasting Notes on the Merryvale Profile Red Wine

Merryvale's Profile is its super-premium Bordeaux blend, featuring the very best of its estate-grown Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc.

  • 1999 Profile: Immediately striking with its alluring aroma of red rose petals and orange peel, this is a wine whose components have beautifully and seamlessly integrated into a satin-textured experience on the palate with pronounced flavors spice-laden cassis and black cherry, with an prominent overlay of cloves and an undercurrant of soft, round vanilla.
  • 2004 Profile: Though more assertively textured than its 5 year older counterpart, this wine's own mouthfeel nevertheless integrates beautifully with its spicy, darker fruit flavor profile redolent of cassis, black cherry, and cocoa, along with aromas of cedar and vanilla.